‘The most profound experience’: Blue Origin sends Star Trek’s William Shatner to the final frontier

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New Shepard launch
Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship fires up its engine. (Blue Origin via YouTube)

Reality caught up with science fiction today when Star Trek actor William Shatner, a.k.a. Captain James T. Kirk, briefly crossed into outer space aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship.

In the process, the 90-year-old Shatner took the title of oldest human in space, less than three months after 82-year-old aviation pioneer Wally Funk set that record on Blue Origin’s first-ever crewed flight.

“How about that, guys?” Shatner could be heard saying during the descent. “That was unlike anything they described. … That was unlike anything you could ever feel.”

Today’s mission at Blue Origin’s Launch Site One in West Texas was the 18th for the New Shepard breed of spaceships, including 16 uncrewed flights over the past six years. It marked a bright day for Jeff Bezos’ Kent, Wash.-based space venture, coming amid a set of challenges and controversies.

The flight followed the pattern set by July’s milestone mission, which carried Funk, Bezos, his brother Mark and Dutch student Oliver Daemen across the 100-kilometer (62-mile) space boundary known as the Karman Line.

Today, Shatner was joined by three other spacefliers: Chris Boshuizen, a venture capitalist who co-founded Planet Labs; Glen de Vries, a co-founder of Medidata Solutions who is now an executive at Dassault Systems; and Audrey Powers, Blue Origin’s vice president of New Shepard mission and flight operations.

Boshuizen and de Vries paid an undisclosed fare for their trip, while Shatner and Powers flew on Blue Origin’s behalf.

Before heading out to the launch pad, Blue Origin crew trainer Sarah Knights presented the quartet with commemorative coins. “Heads we go, tails we don’t,” Shatner joked on the company’s live webcast.

No coin was flipped: Instead, the spacefliers were driven out to the pad in a Rivian truck with a uniform-clad Bezos acting as their chauffeur. They climbed the launch tower’s seven flights of stairs and then strapped themselves into their seats under Knights’ guidance. Bezos himself closed the hatch.

After a series of holds in the countdown, the hydrogen-fueled New Shepard booster lifted off at 9:49 a.m. CT (7:49 a.m. PT), pushing the crew capsule toward a maximum height of 347,539 feet (106 kilometers, or 65.8 miles) above ground level before the two elements of the spacecraft went their separate ways. Shatner and the others had a few minutes to get out of their seats, float in zero-G and gaze at the curving Earth through the capsule’s picture windows.

While the booster flew itself to a touchdown on a landing pad not far from the launch pad, the four space travelers returned to their seats for a parachute-aided descent back to the Texas desert. The trip took 10 minutes and 17 seconds.

After the landing, Bezos opened the hatch and ushered the crew out for a round of hugs from friends and family — and a spray of celebratory champagne.

Shatner waxed philosophical as he chatted with Bezos next to the capsule, with the webcast team’s camera rolling beside them.

“Everybody in the world needs to do this,” Shatner told Bezos. “It was unbelievable. … To see the blue cover go whoop by, and now you’re staring into blackness. … There’s the blue down there, and the black up there. There is Mother Earth and comfort, and there is … Is ‘there’ death? I don’t know. Is that death? Is that the way death is? Whoop and it’s gone. …

“What you have given me is the most profound experience I can imagine,” said Shatner, seemingly overcome. “I’m so filled with emotion about what just happened. It’s extraordinary. I hope I never recover from this. I hope that I can maintain what I feel now. I don’t want to lose it. It’s so much larger than me and life. It hasn’t got anything to do with the ‘little green men’ and the ‘blue orb.’ … It has to do with the enormity, and the quickness and the suddenness of life and death.”

Bezos then gave each of the fliers a custom-made astronaut pin and a hug. Thousands of postcards were packed aboard the capsule for the Club for the Future, Blue Origin’s nonprofit educational program, and they’ll be returned to senders now that they’ve come back from space.

According to The Associated Press, Shatner carried some of Bezos’ childhood mementos with him to space as a favor: Star Trek-style tricorders and communicators that the 57-year-old billionaire made when he was 9 years old and were saved by his mother. (A lifelong Star Trek fan, Bezos had a cameo in the 2016 movie “Star Trek Beyond.”)

Shatner was the star of today’s mission, thanks to his long-running status as a space-show celebrity. He was the starship captain in the original “Star Trek” series in 1966-1969, in an age before his three shipmates were born, and went on to roles in a string of Star Trek movies as well as non-spacey films and TV series.

He’s also served as a pitchman for Priceline, and at times, Shatner sounded as if he was playing that role in an unofficial capacity for Bezos and his space vision. “Jeff Bezos’ concept to make living and building in space, and to make pollution a thing of the past — what noble ambitions those are, and somebody has to start it,” he said in a pre-launch video released by Blue Origin.

So far, New Shepard seems to be the most successful element of Blue Origin’s multi-pronged space program. After July’s first crewed mission, Bezos said that his 21-year-old space venture had racked up nearly $100 million in private sales for future suborbital spaceflights. The next crewed flight is expected to take place late this year, and there’ll be uncrewed research missions as well.

Booster landing
The New Shepard rocket booster comes in for an autonomous landing. (Blue Origin via YouTube)
Crew capsule descent
The New Shepard crew capsule descends to its touchdown. (Blue Origin via YouTube)
After capsule touchdown
The crew capsule sits at its landing site. (Blue Origin Photo)

Blue Origin has faced setbacks on other fronts, including delays in the development of its next-generation BE-4 rocket engine and its orbital-class New Glenn rocket. This spring, it lost out to SpaceX in a multibillion-dollar competition to build the first lunar lander to carry astronauts for NASA’s Artemis moon program. A ruling on Blue Origin’s legal challenge is expected next month.

There have been signs of internal dissension as well: Last month, an essay attributed to 21 current and former Blue Origin employees accused the company of laxity when it comes to sexual harassment and flight safety.

According to the essay, most of the authors “would not fly on a Blue Origin vehicle” due to safety concerns. Perhaps in response to the essay, today’s Blue Origin webcast made a point of emphasizing the safety of the New Shepard system.

“There are a lot of people at Blue that would be excited to fly on New Shepard, and I’m happy to count myself as one of them. It’s a fantastic system. It’s a very robust system,” Andrew Lake, senior director of New Shepard safety and mission assurance, said in a pre-recorded interview.

“Well, I hope we get to go one day,” replied Ariane Cornell, who doubles as a launch commentator as well as Blue Origin’s director of astronaut and orbital sales.

Update for 2 p.m. PT Oct. 14: William Shatner reflected on his experience on NBC’s “Today” show. “When I was there, everything I thought might be clever to say went out the window,” he said. Shatner said he was “struck so profoundly” by seeing the fragile blue Earth beneath the deathly black sky of space.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who’s been engaged in a long-running rivalry with Bezos and Blue Origin, reflected as well — in a reply to Blue Origin’s post-landing tweet:

A dissonant note was struck by Britain’s Prince William, who suggested that billionaires like Bezos and Musk should be spending their money to solve earthly problems rather than to send people into space.

“We need some of the world’s greatest brains and minds fixed on trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live,” he told the BBC.

Bezos and Musk would probably agree that Earth’s welfare is the top priority. Bezos, for example, has argued that moving industry off-Earth would further the cause of preserving the environment. (He’s also pledged $10 billion to the Bezos Earth Fund.)

Shatner said his suborbital spaceflight helped him realize how fragile our planet is, and how important it is to protect it from pollution and other ecological ills. “We all have to clean this act up now,” he told NBC.

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